Howard Holz professes amusement that his last name, in German, means wood. That’s because Howard, affectionately known as Howie to many of his friends and neighbors, is afflicted by a decades-long passion for woodworking. It’s a passion that’s given the retired dairy farmer a regional reputation as an artist utilizing massive wooden slabs as his canvas in creating sought-after works of art.
An unintended consequence of Holz’s love of woodworking is that his retirement hobby is threatening to become a profitable business enterprise with significant potential for growth. While Holz is interested in some amount of business growth, he says he has resisted the temptation to expand. “If I did that, I’d have to spend half my time marketing and selling,” he says. “Then you don’t have time for yourself.”
Because Holz is experiencing growing success almost without trying, his approach to his craft stands as an example to others who might want to establish enterprises based on creating specialty wood furniture and other products.
Holz and his wife Judy, a watercolorist with a considerable local business reputation as well, were part of the Whatcom County, Wash., dairy scene for decades before turning the farm over to a son. The two farmed 120 acres in what is today one of the nation’s top 20 counties for dairy production. According to Judy, the couple managed a herd averaging about 120 cows in the milking string in addition to raising all of their own replacement animals. The farm has been in Howard’s family since 1910 and, as the result of conservation arrangements made by the couple, is set to permanently remain in production.
The lure of wood
Holz’s interest in wood and woodworking was piqued early in life when he saw his cousins and grandfather work in the building trades. While busy with the farm, he still found time to explore the potential of wood. “I started with a few basic tools, including a wood lathe and a table saw and began to experiment,” he says. “I found I just love working with wood and I still do to this day.”
Holz’s love of wood led him to practice his art on larger canvases. “I got a chainsaw about 30 years ago and started doing some planks,” he recalls. “I found I loved opening a log and seeing what’s inside. Sometimes I see the finished product before I’ve opened the log up but each log has surprises. The wood just seems to demand you make something worthwhile out of it.”
He honed his skills building furniture, cabinets and artworks for a new home the couple built upon leaving the dairy business. With the help of a local architect, the couple created what some in the area call “that Frank Lloyd Wright” house; a home is tucked into the summit of a knoll providing a territorial view of the farms, forests and homes of northern Whatcom County. The home won a People’s Choice award from the Northwest Chapter of the American Institute of Architects but, more impressively, the home is filled with artworks created by Judy and by creations made from local woods. A wooden bathtub and sink crafted from a log otherwise destined for someone’s fireplace draws attention to one of Judy’s paintings in the bathroom. In one of the two bedrooms, a gracefully shaped bed created by Howard accents a décor meant to evoke the art and heritage of Japanese life. Paintings, hangings and other works of art abound, but there is no clutter. Each piece fits and enhances its space.
A couple of hundred yards from the Holz home, a visitor enters “Howard’s World,” where huge slabs of wood are stacked. A new Holland 4630 tractor with a 7310 loader that used to be the workhorse of the diary business now moves slabs of wood and logs weighing hundreds or thousands of pounds. Holz estimates he has, at any one time, an inventory of more than 2,000 slabs on hand.
Logs come to the field outside the shop from a variety of sources. “Loggers who appreciate what I’m doing keep a look out for something that can’t be sold for anything but firewood so, to keep it from being wasted, they bring it by here,” Holz explains. “I’ll get great maple logs because it has color and the mills don’t like color or because it has some other defect. Friends and neighbors are always keeping an eye out for something I might like as well.”
Explaining why he likes working with slabs, he says, “I just love working with wood and I have to be doing something with my hands. This work allows me to take a log that would just lay there and rot away or be cut up and burned and just give it a new life.”
Once a log is delivered, the laborious process of turning a misshapen log into a beautiful piece of furniture begins. First, Holz cuts the log into slabs using an Alaskan MK 111 mill. Most of the slabs are cut thick to yield an eventual 2- or 3-inch thick slice of flattened wood. “To me, this is one of the exciting parts of the work,” he says. “I get to see what is actually in there and it isn’t always what I thought might be there.”
After the slabs are milled, the 4630 is fired up and the slabs are moved to a drying shed where they will spend the next two or three years. Drying is critical to the success of the finished product and should never be hurried, Holz says. Sometimes, after a year or two in the air-drying process, a dehumidification kiln will be used to bring the wood down to a target of about 10 percent but, in the main, Holz generally dries the wood outdoors and under cover and then keeps it inside for a time.
Working the slabs
Dry slabs are flattened using a Porter 7518-15A production router mounted on a table Holz built for the process. Bark is removed a bit at a time from the natural or live edges of the slab. “I don’t like to cut the edges off. To me, it ruins the wood,” Holz explains. “I prefer the naturalness of a live edge, so I make what the wood tells me to make instead of forcing something on the wood.”
As the next step, slabs are sanded and sanded — and sanded some more. “When you think you’re done, sand for another hour,” Holz says with a laugh. One of the concessions Holz does make occasionally is to utilize the services of a commercial firm with a wide belt sander to get the wood down to the finishing stages for larger orders.
A variety of tools are used to realize the vision Holz has for the wood he’s working with. Legs and other pieces are shaped and formed using a Powermatic 18” planer, Grizzly G0495 8” jointer, Hitachi CB75F band saw and a Rockwell table saw. Sanding is accomplished using either a Rockwell Delta combo disc and belt sander or a Bosch 6” orbital sander. A Rockwell 14” drill press is also important to the operation.
Because much of Holz’s work involves live edges, milling a straight edge fitting the rest of the piece can sometimes be a problem. As a result, he says, he makes extensive use of a Festool TS75 EQ circular saw and edge guide.
Finished pieces are often given away or, increasingly, sold to admirers who’ve seen Holz’s pieces displayed in a home, inside a church or at a charity event and have been impressed enough to seek him out and commission works.
An example of an admirer is Wes Herman, a Whatcom County entrepreneur who, in just 10 years, has built a 12-unit chain of coffee shops into one of the county’s major employers, all in the face of competition from Starbucks. “Howard is a rare treasure that we have loved working with for several years,” says Herman. “His wealth of knowledge coupled with his stockpile of wood has been something we have leveraged in our stores. The name of our stores is The Woods Coffee, so you can imagine the natural fit in the way we decorate with unique wood from Howard. It usually starts with a visit to the barn to select various pieces and then it’s cutting, fitting and finishing. We are blessed to have some of these exceptional wood pieces in our stores.”
Aware that he could certainly do more to build the commercial end of his business but not sure he wants to pursue that road, Holz describes his present status as being engaged in something that has become more than a retirement hobby, but less than a full-time occupation, by choice. He is, however, willing to share some insights regarding what it would take to grow the business further.
“To begin growing consistently, someone in my position would have to be a good marketer, a good salesman. I could go to galleries and promote to more stores, but I never have. To grow, that would have to change. Someone who is a good marketer could do well.
“Next,” Holz continues, “quality of work is really important. If you want to succeed at this, you have to always do the best work you can do. Take care of your slabs and don’t make compromises just because you are in a hurry to grow.”
Lastly, a growing company can get into trouble especially when someone like Holz, who does everything, begins to push up against the physical boundaries. One person can only do so much, he says, but it is possible to do more by using resources available in the community. “That leaves me time to do the things I do best.”
Every successful woodshop business is eventually faced with decisions about growth. The best advice Holz can give is to “remember why you started to do what you are doing in the first place and stay true to that.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.